Diocesan News

Msgr. Geraghty Revered for Courage During 9/11, Rockaway Plane Crash

American Airlines Flight 587 crashed on Nov. 12, 2001, a short distance from St. Francis de Sales Parish in Belle Harbor, Queens. Msgr. Martin Geraghty, then the pastor, rushed to the scene to offer prayers for the dead and counsel first responders still reeling from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. (Photo: Getty Images)

BELLE HARBOR — Msgr. Martin Geraghty’s resume sparkled with many jobs well done, including parish priest, seminary professor, and tribunal appellate judge.

Msgr. Geraghty was retired at the Bishop Mugavero Residence for Senior Priests when he died April 9, Easter Sunday, at the age of 83.

Still, with such a deep and diverse priestly career, his fellow clergymen point to 2001, when he was pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in the Belle Harbor neighborhood on the Rockaway Peninsula.

Father Bill Sweeney, the parish’s current pastor and a former seminary student of Msgr. Geraghty, explained how “Rockaway is made up of firemen and cops married to nurses and teachers.”

News reports of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks spurred parishioners to rush over to Beach Channel Drive. Although more than 15 miles away, they could see smoke and flames belching from the World Trade Center. In horror, they watched the Twin Towers collapse, knowing loved ones were there.

“But Marty, the most noted thing he did was ring the bell to lead everybody back to the church,” Father Sweeney said. “That’s where he led a prayer service and had a Mass and tried to bring people together.” 

Msgr. Geraghty died April 9, Easter Sunday. His actions following the Sept. 11 attacks and the crash of an airliner at Belle Harbor two months later speak volumes, according to fellow priests. (Photo: The Tablet photo archives)

Line of Melchizedek

Peter Purpura Sr. was not a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales. He attends Blessed Trinity Parish in Breezy Point. He noted, however, that nearby St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy educated his four children, including Father Peter Purpura, now the pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Middle Village.

The elder Purpura has become a faithful biographer of senior priests in the diocese, which he has done for Msgr. Geraghty, who was pastor in Belle Harbor while Purpura’s kids attended the school. 

He said Msgr. Geraghty’s resume, peppered with stretches of extraordinary pastoral care, forms a casebook example of what young men considering the seminary might see if they become ordained. 

“You need to serve the people,” Purpura said. “You say, ‘I do. I’ll follow the line of Melchizedek.’ And away we go.” 

Purpura said the monsignor was born in Brooklyn to parents Martin and Alice Geraghty. 

The family belonged to St. Francis Xavier Parish in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Msgr. Geraghty attended grade school. An older sibling, Sister Mary Geraghty, was regional superior for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Suffolk County from 1991-2000. She died last year at age 92.


He Lived There With Us

But the priesthood was an early goal of Msgr. Geraghty, who attended Cathedral Prep and Seminary, Cathedral College, and then St. Mary’s Seminary & University, Baltimore.

His scholarly skills drew the attention of the faculty. He subsequently went to the Pontifical North American College and the Pontifical Gregorian University, both in Rome, for advanced degrees in theology. He was ordained in 1964 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

Msgr. Geraghty served the parishes of St. Elizabeth in Ozone Park and St. Joan of Arc in Jackson Heights before returning to Cathedral College in 1970, this time as a professor.

“Marty taught me in the seminary,” Father Sweeney said. “He lived there with us. He would say Mass, be our adviser, and take care of us. We’ve been friends since. He was at my ordination.”


He Generated Trust

Msgr. Sean Ogle, vicar for clergy and consecrated life for the diocese, also was a seminary student of Msgr. Geraghty. 

Msgr. Ogle said the former professor became known as a deep thinker who effectively communicated the complexities of faith — a skill that became useful as he consoled and counseled grieving parishioners in 2001. 

Later, Msgr. Ogle was a first-time pastor at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway, while Msgr. Geraghty was the pastor in Belle Harbor. The younger priest frequently called his former professor for advice on a wide range of pastoral issues.

But, the depth of his spirituality was appreciated by people of other faiths in the Rockaway neighborhoods as well, Msgr. Ogle said. 

“On my end of the peninsula, we had Orthodox Jews, and at his end were liberal Jews,” Msgr. Ogle said. “They wouldn’t talk to each other, but sometimes they would give messages. But they would give them to Marty to convey to the other side. They told me that!”

Msgr. Ogle said his mentor generated trust.

“He could maintain contact at both ends of the ecumenical spectrum, even among non-Catholics,” Msgr. Ogle said.


Very Dark Days

Msgr. Geraghty was pastor of St. Francis de Sales from 1988 to 2006. One of his successors was Msgr. John Bracken, who is now retired there. A former vicar general, he stays busy as the current administrator of the diocese patrimony of stored church furnishings. 

Msgr. Bracken said parishioners often recall how his longtime friend since the seminary conducted funerals for the fallen, sometimes many months after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

“Remember, they had the ‘pile’ down there, and they were searching for the remains,” Msgr. Bracken said of the efforts at ground zero. “In some instances, what was recovered was minimal.” 

About 70 people from the Rockaways, most of them firefighters, died in the attacks, and Msgr. Geraghty celebrated or concelebrated at least half of those funerals, Msgr. Ogle said. 

Msgr. Bracken noted that many were graduates of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy. 

“We also lost young people working over at Cantor Fitzgerald — you know, Wall Streeters — and the firefighters as well,” Msgr. Bracken said. “But the parish was central, and Marty Geraghty was that ‘good shepherd’ who led them through those very dark days.”


Held the Parish Together

The darkness intensified on Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into Belle Harbor shortly after taking off from JFK  Airport. All 260 people on board died, along with five people on the ground, including parishioners.

Msgr. Bracken, Purpura, and Father Sweeney said Msgr. Geraghty was a humble gentleman who never called attention to himself. Yet in moments of calamity, he summoned the inner courage to move forward and serve, despite the risks to his own safety. 

“The plane came down just a couple of blocks away from his church while he was saying Mass,” Purpura said. “He rushed over there, and then he was going about blessing bodies on the ground.” 

Msgr. Ogle said most priests serve parishes for about six years, and their assignments can be extended for another six. Msgr. Geraghty, however, served an extraordinary 18 years in Belle Harbor before he was assigned to pastor St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Bayside. He retired there in 2015. 

Still, Father Sweeney, Msgr. Bracken, and Purpura agree the enduring legacy of their longtime friend will be his pastoral care in Belle Harbor following the dual tragedies of 2001.

“God put him in the right place at the right time,” Msgr. Bracken concluded. “He really was the rock of ages that held the parish together.”